Take Me Out to the Small Game

by Chris Kenton on March 23, 2006

I’m going a little far afield today. Stay with me, it’ll come full circle.

I’ve been following the recent revival of the Barry Bonds doping scandal with the release of the investigative book "Out of the Shadows". I’m one of those Giants fans who’s been in denial. I watched with incredible fascination as Bonds kept dominating the plate and sending the ball into the stratosphere like a vision from every little leaguer’s dreams. It was magical. And it wasn’t too hard to write off the accusations of doping as the whining of detractors.

Now, the evidence is too overwhelming to dismiss, and I wonder how I could have ignored the obvious for so long. I mean, come on, an aging athlete becomes a hulk overnight and pops his batting average to record heights? What kind of collective fantasy are we all living that we refuse to confront such obvious red flags? Where was the mainstream sports media? Where was Major League Baseball? And more to the point, where are they now?

This year, I’m really torn about taking my 5-year-old son to see the Giants. I know he’s not old enough to understand a scandal, and he’ll bask in the atmosphere of a Saturday game at the park. But I’ll be stewing in the knowledge that it’s just another cynical industry that looks the other way when tickets are being sold.

And here is where this comes full circle. As crazy as this may sound, it seems to me that Bonds is a metaphor for the worst in Capitalism. The short term gain is relentlessly pursued even in the face of long-term loss. Bonds gave us a few seasons of magic. And now there will be a long and painful hangover. We may have bought a lot of tickets then, but how many people will be disillusioned this season and look somewhere else for inspiration? How many people will never look at baseball the same again? And how many people will start to doubt other heroes? Lance Armstrong, anyone? Too good to be true?

I sat with my son last weekend in the bleachers at a local high school game, and after a few minutes soaking up the atmosphere of a small local game, I started wondering if any of those high school kids were using steroids, or how long it would be before they would be tempted. I feel like I’ve lost something of value–not just an experience of something magical, but a belief that the magical is real, that it’s possible. That’s now replaced with a sense of cynicism and disgust. And you can bet there’s a real dollar value to that feeling, especially when it’s aggregated over a mass market.

So. Was it worth it? How will the balance sheet for Baseball look after this scandal finally settles? Think about it. Beyond the disillusionment and disgust, Baseball, and most sports for that matter, have cultivated an unsustainable appetite for super human feats. Without chemically enhanced super athletes to make it all so exciting, what segment of the commercial fan base will wander away, bored by the banalities of a normal season?

Why does this look so much like a metaphor for business to me? I believe in the strengths of Capitalism, but watching what’s happening in the confluence of Big business, politics and entertainment–how everything is so relentlessly short-sighted, mindlessly selfish, and cynically amoral–I can’t help wondering what, beyond the bottom line damage, we’re losing with each new scandal. What new hope will be replaced by cynicism and disgust? And in the end, what faith will we have left to invest in achieving the impossible?

Before you go off and slit your wrists, let me say that I’m not a cynic. I don’t believe all is lost. I just think we’re deluded in believing that reform will come from the government, from business, from Hollywood (no, not even George Clooney), or from religion. Change in our business culture is only going to come from the fringes, from the individuals and the small businesses that will grow larger by doing things different, and by investment from people who want to see those changes succeed.

My big burning question for the day–and I invite comments so I can see some examples–is what businesses or institutions do you have faith in today? Who’s doing something right that we should all know more about?

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

David March 24, 2006 at 9:03 am

Christopher,

I feel your pain. No kidding. But there is much to rejoice about. There are good reasons to look forward with optimism as capitalism undergoes a social transformation that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago.

The enrons and Tycos of the world get the headlines while companies doing it right rarely get credit for how they are changing the ethos of business. I and my co-author Raj Sisodia write about this in “Firms of Endearment” due out under the Wharton imprint in September.

We cite some 30 firms in FoE who are doing it right. Fifteen are publicly trading companies who have bested the index funds by an extraordinary margin over the past 10 years and notably have far outperformed the companies held up as exemplars in Jim Collins’ “Good to Great”.

Yes, we are headed into a future in which corporations will once more (in the main) be effective, concerned agents of society. That was true for corporations in their first 500 years of existence. They only got their self-serving that has plagued us in recent years attitude after British Parliment passed a law in 1843 relieving corporations of any duty to society’s needs.

If you’re interested, contact me ands I’ll send you a sampling of the book for you to get a feel for it.

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